This brand new post, a piece of the author’s own research, is particularly fitting for the last day of 2012.
The epagomenal days in the Egyptian civil calendar were five days added to the standard three hundred and sixty day year, introduced in order to align the calendar with the Sothic cycle. The earliest mention of the epagomenal days is attested to the Old Kingdom, proving that their inclusion in the calendar had occurred by this time.
It is believed that the Egyptians greatly feared these days due to the prevalence of plague and disease, attributed to the wanderers (SmAjw) and slaughterers (xAtjw) of the goddess, Sekhmet, which were particularly rife at the end of the calendar year. Magical texts, such as the Book of the Last Day of the Year on Papyrus Leiden I 346, were recited in order to pacify the goddess, and rituals were performed, for example, the application of linen bandages inscribed with certain deities to the throat to ward off the effects of plague. The Cairo Calendar (cat. no. 86637), an example of the calendars of lucky and unlucky days, provides insights into the mythology linked to the epagomenal days, and includes magical texts used to ward off the dangers present during these days.
Presented in this research paper is an analysis of the myths and rituals connected to the epagomenal days. The chief focus is on the textual sources, particularly the Cairo Calendar which reveals aspects of the mythology connected with the epagomenal days, and magical texts, including The Book of the Last Day of the Year, which assist with examining the fear attached to the period, and with discovering whether the Egyptians actually feared the epagomenal days themselves, or whether they feared the disease that was so common at that time of year. This study will show that the Egyptians, motivated by their desire for order to triumph over chaos, used myths of supernatural causality in order to provide a rational explanation of the chaotic and adverse occurrences of the epagomenal period to weave into their worldview, and that rather than being fearful of the epagomenal days themselves, they were fearful of the yearly threat of disease.
The worldview of any society is defined as the way that people are provided with an understanding of the ways of their world, by interpreting the events which occur in reality and questioning the meaning of circumstances which are beyond their control, giving them rational meaning. It is tempting to label the fear attached to the epagomenal days as irrational, or superstition, but this would not be accurate. Such a qualification certainly does not fit into the Egyptian worldview. The Greek historian, Plutarch encapsulates the worldview of the Egyptians, emphasising why the term ‘superstition’ cannot be used to qualify the fear attached to the epagomenal days (De Iside et Osiride 8.353e):
For nothing irrational or fabulous or based on superstition, as some believe, was embodied in the religious services, but ideas which either had moral and necessary causes or were not devoid of historical or physical plausibility.
The Egyptian desire for order (maat) over chaos (isfet) is manifest in this worldview, for the ‘irrational or fabulous’ has no place in the ordered world, creating the necessity for rational explanations for occurrences of misfortune, such as disease, and the calendars of lucky and unlucky days are a prime example of this counteractive attempt. As Bács remarks, these calendars have often been regarded as ‘manifestations of superstition’, particularly in classical religious opinion, but the Egyptians did not use this classification, and so it cannot be employed in this instance. It is possible that the Egyptians may have viewed the epagomenal days as particularly nefarious due to their status as Hrjw rnpt ‘those added to the year’, intruding upon the order of twelve months of thirty days. During the epagomenal days, the Egyptians believed that nHH, a concept best identified with everyday time, stood still and they feared that Dt, defined by Assmann as “the continuation of the completed”, could remain forever, upsetting balance and order, unless certain rituals were carried out. However, this cannot be labelled as superstition, for this was not ‘irrational or fabulous’ behaviour, but rather a rational reaction dictated by the mythological explanation for the hazards of the epagomenal period, in accordance with the Egyptian worldview.
Further evidence of an attempt to provide rational explanations for the prevalence of disease during the epagomenal days can be found in the ‘Myth of the Heavenly Cow’, or ‘The Destruction of Mankind’, a myth first attested to the New Kingdom. In the narrative, the sun-god, Re, pacifies the angry goddess, Sekhmet, who was sent out to destroy rebellious mankind, after he takes pity upon them. The slaughter of mankind provides an explanation for the extreme heat and disease at the end of each year, the dangers of the epagomenal days, which were believed to have passed at the start of the inundation. It is clearly evident that an explanation for the hazards of the epagomenal period was desired due to the connection made with the mythology, and by using the ‘Myth of the Heavenly Cow’, the heat and disease take on a rational meaning rather than being viewed as seemingly random occurrences. This also explains why the yearly plague was attributed to the wanderers and murderers of the fierce goddess.
The behaviour of a society is based upon their worldview, and in the case of the Egyptians, the attribution of the yearly plague to supernatural forces leads to the establishment of rituals designed to pacify Sekhmet and those who act for her. The Book of the Last Day of the Year (Papyrus Leiden I 346) is a magical text with this type of ritual described in the rubric, which is performed in order to pacify the gods who are in the service of Sekhmet and Thoth, so as to prevent the person performing the spell from being afflicted with the jAdt rnpt, the so-called ‘Pestilence of the Year’:
Hail to [you], gods there, murderers (xAyty) who stand in waiting upon the Sakhmet, who have come forth from the Eye of Re, messengers (wpwty) everywhere present in the districts, who bring slaughtering about, who create uproar, who hurry through the land, who shoot their arrows from their mouth, who see [from] afar! Be on your way, [be distant] from me! Go on, you I shall not go along with you! You shall have no power over me, you shall not give me to […] you shall not … over me in order to …[… …] your [exer]tions(?).
This passage clearly exemplifies the Egyptian worldview of supernatural causality. The person reciting the spell refuses to allow the negative plague-bearing entities to “have power over” him, a clear indication that disease was believed to be at the hands of the gods, again emphasising that this is not simply a case of irrational superstition. The rubric of the text specifies that the words are to be recited over a piece of ‘fine linen’, and that the twelve gods that are invoked within the recitation must be drawn on it. Twelve knots are then tied in the linen, and it is applied to a man’s throat. The application of knots has been extensively explored by Wendrich, who suggests that this type of linear knotting could have mnemonic function, aiding with the recitation in the same manner as praying the rosary in the Roman Catholic faith. The function of these knots could also be to restrain the negative entities, and so prevent the influences of disease in this case. Again, the theme of supernatural causality is evident, for it is the influence of the entities that the ritual primarily aims to restrain, and the prevention of disease is a secondary result of this practice. By refusing to succumb to the supernatural power, acting instead to restrain it, the person performing the spell displays the desire to bring order over the chaos, the ‘uproar’ created by the murderers and messengers of Sekhmet and Thoth, further exhibiting the need to give a rational explanation to the hazards of the epagomenal days that is supported by their worldview.
Fear of disease is a common and rational fear in many societies, and yet the evidence examined thus far does not fully explain why scholars believe that the epagomenal days themselves were particularly feared in Egypt. The Egyptians considered the year to end during the summer, before the inundation began and brought with it the new year, and the insertion of the epagomenal days between these points could be regarded as nothing more than an unfortunate coincident – the Egyptian calendar was structured around the agricultural routine, with three seasons named Axt or “Inundation”, prt or “Growing”, and Smw or “Harvest”. The addition of the five extra days into the middle of this rigid structure would appear to go against maat, the strongly desired order, and so to insert them at the end of the current year, and before the beginning of the new year, avoiding disruption, could have been considered as the only logical course of action. To that end, fear of the epagomenal days themselves appears to be irrational, for disease would have always been rife in the stifling heat of summer, due to droughts and the subsequent poverty, even before the epagomenal days were added to the calendar. The epagomenal days did not bring the ‘Pestilence of the Year’, the jAdt rnpt, to the Egyptians – it was already an annual occurrence.
The mythology connected to the five epagomenal days themselves offers a deeper insight into whether a fear of them did actually exist. The most comprehensive account of a myth that provides an explanation for the existence of the epagomenal days is found in Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride. Plutarch recounts an etiological tale in which the sun-god, Re, curses Nut so that she cannot give birth on any day of the year. Thoth plays draughts against the moon, playing to win parts of days, and wins enough parts to make five whole days which he adds to the year, upon which Nut is able to give birth to Osiris, Horus the Elder, Seth, Isis and Nephthys respectively (De Iside et Osiride, 12.355d-f). While there is no record of this exact myth in Egyptian sources, there are aspects that correspond to Egyptian mythology, such as Nut being the mother of the five gods, and their births occurring on the epagomenal days. The curse of Re, as Griffiths remarks, is a creation employed to provide an explanation for the addition of the epagomenal days. If the myth is authentically Egyptian, it provides an excellent example of the establishment of a worldview – the myth is a rational explanation for the addition of the epagomenal days which is in keeping with the Egyptian belief of supernatural causality. However, Plutarch, a Greek historian, is believed to have written De Iside et Osiride circa 120 A. D., and there is no certainty that this myth exactly correlates to the ancient Egyptian beliefs, and so the native sources must also be examined further.
The belief that the epagomenal days were the birthdays of the five gods corresponds to the mythology of Papyrus Leiden I 346, including to that of the Book of the Five Days in Addition to the Year (also on the Leiden papyrus), and to that of the Cairo Calendar. The Book of the Five Days in Addition to the Year also includes sections of magical texts to be recited on the epagomenal days which have been discussed by Chabas in a very outdated publication. Once again, ‘le fléau de l’année’, the scourge of the year, is attributed to the followers of Sekhmet, however the ‘influence funeste de cinq jours en sus de l’année’, the fatal influence of the five days in addition to the year, could be interpreted as implying that the cause of the hazards is believed to be the epagomenal days themselves. The text also stipulates that the one who knows the names of the individual days will not fall to the followers of Sekhmet, and furthermore, he will not be tormented by thirst, and the annual contagion will not cut him down. The person performing the spell then asserts that he knows the names of the days, and that he is not tormented by thirst, or cut down by the annual contagion. While this text could be interpreted as providing evidence of a fear of the epagomenal days themselves, the emphasis is still very much on avoiding the disease attributed to the influence of Sekhmet. The rubric of this text provides further evidence of this preoccupation with disease during the epagomenal days:
Saying these things, it is these same gods painted with fat and perfume on a piece of cloth of fine linen.
During the five extra days of the year, do no work during these days, vain (is the work?). Clothing becomes impregnated with evil, abstain from everything rigorously.
Everyone who does these things in writing, his face will not be humiliated.
As in the rubric of the Book of the Last Day of the Year, fine linen is specified, and the five gods who were born on the epagomenal days are painted onto it, however a different instruction follows, abstention from work, and a warning that clothing soaks up harmful germs. The motif of disease prevention dominates this text, providing further evidence that it was the fear of disease that existed, and not a fear of the epagomenal days themselves.
The calendars of lucky and unlucky days, attested to the Middle and New Kingdoms, reveal further information regarding the Egyptian view of the epagomenal period, and are prime examples of how the worldview of a society is established. Events are recognised as the influence of the supernatural, and interpreted in order to ascertain the best way to react to them, and many of them include magical texts to be recited during the epagomenal days. The Cairo Calendar reiterates the information in the Book of the Five Days in Addition to the Year regarding the birthdays of the five gods, and also the names of the days, albeit in a slightly different order as discussed at length by Spalinger, however the theme of disease is still dominant. The text states that the one who knows the names of the days will not “die through the pestilence of the year” and that “no illness will take possession of him”. The first mentioned benefits of knowing the names of the epagomenal days, however, is listed as not having hunger or thirst, rather than avoidance of disease, which Bakir notes was a fear among the Egyptians in the afterlife. This could also be a reference to the droughts that preceded the inundation due to the intense heat, a reminder of the slaughtering carried out by Sekhmet in the ‘Myth of the Heavenly Cow’, and reiterating the hazardous conditions at the end of the year – with the inundation came drinking water and water to grow food, ending any hunger and thirst.
Raven argues that three of the pieces of inscribed linen (strips c-e in his study of the charms used during the epagomenal days), which depict the standing figures of Osiris, Isis and Nephthys respectively, are examples of the linen charms created and worn in accordance with the rubric of the Book of the Five Days in Addition to the Year, however, as Raven remarks but dismisses, the rubric appears to speak of a single piece of linen inscribed with the five deities, rather than individual pieces. A more convincing argument is that the linen bandages in question were created to be used in accordance with the rubric of a magical text which forms a part of the Cairo Calendar:
WORDS TO BE SAID AFTER THEM WHEN THE EPAGOMENAL DAYS ARE COMPLETED.
Hail to you! O great ones according to their names, children of a goddess who have come forth from the sacred womb, lords because of (Hr) their father, goddesses because of (Hr) their mother, without knowing the necropolis. Behold, may you protect (me) and save me. May you make me prosperous, may you make protection, may you repeat and may you protect me. I am one who is on their list.
THE SPELL IS TO BE SAID FOUR TIMES. Make for thyself an amulet as protection about the neck (for the five) epagomenal days in (the name of) these gods on the day . . . . . . . . written on the choice of . . . . . . amulet . . . . THE FEMALE FIGURE of Isis, THE FEMALE FIGURE of Neph(thys) . . . .
Although the lacunae in the text do not allow a complete reading of the rubric, it is possible that ‘choice of . . . . . . amulet’ could refer to a linen amulet, such as the inscribed linen bandages studied by Raven. The group of signs that Bakir has translated as sA ‘amulet’ is more likely intended to be read as sA ‘protection’ (Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae, lemma-no. 125600) due to the book roll and plural stroke determinatives; the sA sign is usually written with the ideogram stroke only, when it is used for ‘amulet’. The word wDA ‘amulet, protective spell’ (Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae, lemma-no. 52280) is used in line 5 of this section of text, and so to use a different word, sA, for ‘amulet’, in the same text seems unlikely. By removing the impression of the faience-type amulets often associated with the term, it is entirely possible that this particular text speaks of linen charms. Furthermore, the lacuna after words stp n ‘choice of . . . . . .’ would accommodate pAqt ‘fine linen’ (Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae, lemma-no. 59330), as specified in the Leiden papyrus. Indeed, part of the word pAqt is visible, and the Leiden papyrus also uses the phrase stp n ‘a piece of’ (Papyrus Leiden I 346, col. II, 3).
These amuletic bandages were designed to be worn around the neck, as prescribed in the above rubric of the Cairo Calendar, in the same manner as the bandages that were created in accordance with the rubric of the Book of the Last Day of the Year. While there is no prescription of knotting in this rubric, the theme of knotting still remains. The throat and its vertebrae was considered to be the ‘knot’ of the body, holding the main limbs together, and the word Tz ‘knot’ was often used for ‘throat’, however in this instance, the word xx has been used instead. Amulets were commonly applied to the throat to prevent disease, as it was viewed as particularly vulnerable, and the prescription of this in the rubric of the Cairo Calendar emphasises the preoccupation with disease during the epagomenal days.
The Cairo Calendar provides yet another example of a text concerning the epagomenal days that focuses on disease prevention, and further explains the relationship between the deities believed to have been born on these days, and the hazards present during the epagomenal period:
SPELLS WHICH ARE SAID AGAINST (OR, WITH REGARD TO) IT on the five epagomenal days, what is made as amulets:
TURN BACK, O that enemy, death and so on when descending in the five epagomenal days. If you depart, you will not come to me (for) you will find Osiris, the Ruler of the West, and Thoth. Behold, that is the enemy of this land, that enemy, death, and so on. May their bones be smitten.
May their corpses be annihilated in the five epagomenal days. May they save me from all bad things or evil things. WORDS TO BE RECITED on a figure of Osiris, of Horus, a figure of Seth and the female figure of Isis, the female figure of Nephthys, DRAWN ON CHOICE PAQT-LINEN AND PLACED
ROUND A MAN’S NECK . . . BEING TRUE MILLION TIMES . . . .
Death is explicitly named as one of the enemies encountered during the epagomenal days, and is told to ‘turn back’ from its descent. The person reciting the spell requests that the enemies are destroyed during the epagomenal period, which invites a new interpretation of the Egyptian view of the epagomenal days – it is possible that the Egyptians saw the epagomenal days as a period of cleansing, in the sense that enemies are destroyed. ‘May they save me from all bad things or evil things’ could be interpreted as a relative clause, referring to the epagomenal days in the preceding clause. With this interpretation in mind, it can be applied to the other texts that have been studied thus far, for example the ‘influence funeste de cinq jours en sus de l’année’ mentioned in the Book of the Five Days in Addition to the Year, could be interpreted as only being fatal to the enemies who are annihilated during this period. The jAdt rnpt may have been seen as a type of divine scourge sent to rid Egypt of its enemies during the epagomenal days, in the same manner that the fierce Sekhmet, the Eye of Re, was sent out to destroy humankind when they began to plot against the sun-god in the ‘Myth of the Heavenly Cow’. Further evidence to support this is found in the text of the Cairo Calendar – several supplications to the gods occur, of the form “O [god name + epithets]. Will you save me from any bad and evil things, from any slaughter of the year” followed by the name of the particular epagomenal day. The term ‘slaughter of the year’ could again be referring to a yearly scourge, and by reciting the particular name of the days to the associated deity, one was able to protect oneself from it. Knowledge of the names of the epagomenal days is again specified as a means of protection in the fourth line of text, against any bad things, hunger, thirst, and against being overcome by Bastet, another form of Sekhmet. Once again, the emphasis is on the fear of disease rather than a fear of the epagomenal days themselves.
Further evidence to dispute the existence of fear of the epagomenal days arises when examining the sources in terms of their chronology. Reference to the epagomenal days occurs as early as 5th Dynasty, in the Niuserre Temple Calendar, and the 6th Dynasty in the Pyramid Texts of Pepi II, which shows that they had been added to the civil calendar at least as early as the Old Kingdom, however the sources that remain that detail the mythological connections, date to much later. The Book of the Last Day of the Year, and the Book of the Five Days in Addition to the Year date to the early 18th Dynasty , and the Cairo Calendar to the ninth year of the 20th Dynasty reign of Ramesses II. The ‘Myth of the Heavenly Cow’ is also attested to the New Kingdom. The assignment of the epagomenal days as birthdays of Osiris, Horus the Elder, Seth, Isis and Nephthys is first attested to the Middle Kingdom, as is the attribution of disease to the followers of Sekhmet. This raises the question of whether or not the fear attached to the epagomenal days existed from the time that they were introduced to the calendar, or whether this fear arose later. The fact that no evidence for the fear has come to light before the Middle Kingdom does not necessarily mean that it did not exist, as the sources could have been lost, and so it is not possible to say whether the fear attached to the epagomenal days existed before this time. One possible explanation is that the epagomenal days are believed to have originally been placed at the start of the year, and were only moved to the end of the year at a later time, and so they may not have always fallen in the period of summer due to the ‘wandering’ of the year that their addition was intended to prevent, however this failed as every fourth year was almost one day shorter than the Sothic cycle. The same is true even if the epagomenal days had always been at the end of the year – over the course of time, they moved through the year in relation to the summer heat and disease. It is possible that they did not originally occur in the period of disease, and that over time they moved into this period, and so the fear of disease came to be associated with them.
The available sources related to the epagomenal days reveal much about the mythology and rituals connected to them, but they can also be interpreted in order to discover how the Egyptians viewed this period of their civil calendar. Although it is widely believed that the Egyptians feared this period, this study has shown that it was in fact the threat of disease that they feared, which was an unfortunate result of the extreme heat and drought of the summer months which housed the epagomenal days. The sources display a preoccupation with disease, as do the rituals associated with them. The rubrics of the magical texts that were intended for use during the epagomenal period prescribe that inscribed linen bandages should be worn about the neck, the most vulnerable part of the body, to prevent one from falling victim to the pestilence. Some of these amuletic devices were knotted in order to restrain the influences of negative entities. These magical texts and ritual artefacts show that, in accordance with their worldview of supernatural causality, the Egyptians attributed this hazard to specific supernatural entities, such as the followers of Sekhmet and Thoth as revealed in the Book of the Last Day of the Year. Motivated by their desire for maat over isfet, or order over chaos, they attached this rational meaning to a seemingly random misfortune that was outside of their control.
This study has also explored the possibility that the jAdt rnpt, or ‘Pestilence of the Year’, was viewed by the Egyptians as a ‘cleansing scourge’ sent by the gods to cleanse Egypt of her enemies during the epagomenal period, harking back to the sun-god’s ordering of the slaughtering of mankind by Sekhmet in the ‘Myth of the Heavenly Cow’, and which one could only avoid by knowing the names of the days, and by making supplications to the five gods who were born on those days asking for their protection.
Classical religious views frequently branded the hemerological sources as ‘superstitious’, and it is tempting to apply the same label to a fear of the epagomenal days due to its ‘irrational or fabulous’ nature, however this study has shown that the sources have been misinterpreted, and that the fear was that of disease, a rational fear faced by many modern societies. While one may still argue that attributing disease to the supernatural is ‘superstitious’, the Egyptians, motivated by their desire for order over chaos, used their mythology to assign such meaningful explanations to occurrences outside of their control in order to understand how they should appropriately react to them, in the same manner that any society constructs its worldview, and this leaves no room for interpretations of ‘irrational’, ‘fabulous’ or ‘superstitious’.
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